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Dandelion Wine
Review by Les Spindle, Back Stage West

On the magical opening night of the Colony Theatre's lovely new Burbank home, the vintage Dandelion Wine (1981), based on Ray Bradbury's semi-autobiographical novel, offered a bittersweet blend of Thornton Wilder's Americana and Bradbury's trademark mysticism. As interpreted by director Terrence Shank (the Colony's co-founder) and a stellar team of performers and designers, this musical is at once bubbly and tart, comic and tragic, quaint and profound. Choosing this irresistible vehicle from the theatre's illustrious past to launch the group's classy new facility was a fortuitous move.

Bradbury's fanciful tale of a fateful summer in fictional Greentown, Illinois, in 1928, starts out on an exuberant tone of optimism and joy, with "Wake Up, World," a sprightly production number that introduces the central character of young Douglas (Matt Raftery) and the colorful small-town denizens. The feeling of idyllic Middle America is eloquently captured in John Patrick's stylized unit set, employing gorgeously etched building exteriors, large cut-outs of trees, imaginative back-wall projections, and Ryan Marquart's tasteful furniture pieces and props. Deserving special notice are such enchanting devices as a movable trolley car and motorcar, and a magical "happiness" chair.

Just as the resulting upbeat tone threatens to veer toward saccharine overdose, a hint of darker clouds on the horizon begins to emerge, with the arrival in town of mysterious stranger Bill Forrester (David Carey Foster). Yet, it isn't until after intermission that the rueful and even ominous elements of the story fully emerge. Forrester claims to be writing a story about the town and enlists Douglas' aid in guiding him through. When Forrester begins expressing notes of cynicism and dread, this threatens to turn Douglas' dreamlike summer into something less joyous. When a mechanical fortune teller (superbly played by Molly Beck) warbles songs hinting at separations and possibly even death, the exact identity of the enigmatic Forrester comes into question. Douglas acquires a valuable life lesson about cherishing life's happiest moments, while learning to let go when events take their inevitable turns.

Bradbury's literate book imbues the large number of full-bodied characters with poignancy and wit, allowing his parable to play out in a leisurely yet engrossing manner, effectively served by Shank's sure-handed sense of pace. Yet Jeffrey Rockwell's music and lyrics are more serviceable than memorable. Too many of the sung-through sequences sound redundant and not particularly melodic, but the score boasts enough energetic group numbers ("Paralitefoot Tennis Shoes" and "A Happiness Machine") and heartfelt ballads (such as "Walking Through the World") to provide ample musical pleasures. The comic number "The Lonely One," about a legendary bogey man (David Jahn) ravaging the town (shades of Scream 3), becomes a tour de force for Peggy Billo and Judy Walstrum as two histrionic eccentrics.

In fact, virtuoso performances are omnipresent. With his Pepsodent smile and nonstop energy, Raftery is the most captivating boy-next-door lead since Christian Campbell lit up the Hudson stage in Reefer Madness. The always-impressive Barbara Passolt sings with grace and acts with panache as the sweet librarian. D. Ewing Woodruff and Eileen T'Kaye delight as an Old World carny/inventor and his wife. Phillip Watt charms us with his heartwarming portrayal of Douglas' best pal, and Glenn Irey has good moments as Douglas' kid brother, though he sometimes speaks too fast for complete clarity. Foster conveys an appropriate aura of mystique as Douglas' mentor/adversary. Amid all of the fine work, Robert Stephen Ryan, Lon Huber, Whitney Rydbeck, Robert O'Reilly, Patricia Cullen, Devon Reeves, and Tom Dugan are the standouts.

Add to all of the aforementioned D. Sylvio Volonte's atmospheric and versatile lighting, Michael Fracassi's wonderful sound effects, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's colorful costumes, Brian Frette's spirited choreography, and the pristine efforts of musical director Richard Berent and his five-piece combo, and the magical spell is complete. 

Bravo to the Colony for popping the cork on a triumphant and auspicious new beginning!

Copyright 2000 by BackStage
Reprinted with permission
Dandelion Wine at the Colony Theatre